How a Yorkshire gallery launched its answer to the Turner Prize.

Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth Wakefield.
Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth Wakefield.

As The Hepworth Wakefield launches a £30,000 sculpture prize, the gallery’s director talks to Sarah Freeman about why we all need a little artistic ambition.

For the last few months Simon Wallis has been keeping a secret. Possibly the biggest of his career.

Yesterday after countless hushed meetings and secret memos, the director of The Hepworth Wakefield finally got to break his silence with the announcement that the gallery is to launch a £30,000 art prize. Billed as sculpture’s answer to the Turner Prize, the biennial award will recognise a British or UK-based artist who has made a significant contribution to contemporary sculpture.

“Yes, I can finally relax,” says Wallis, who has been with the gallery since 2008, three full years before it welcomed its first visitor. “When we began thinking about launching this Prize we approached a number of people within the art world to test the water. Each time we would ask them to name the major art prize for sculpture and each time they looked blank.

“The fact one had never existed was both surprising and disappointing. It’s a strange anomaly, but here at the Hepworth sculpture is in our DNA, it’s right there in the name of our gallery which honours Barbara Hepworth and it seemed right that if anyone should redress the balance it should be us.”

The Prize, which will result in an exhibition later next year, is also about marking the gallery’s five year anniversary. It was back in May 2011 that the imposing David Chipperfield designed building was finally complete. There was, of course, the usual ribbon cutting and a succession of speeches from local dignitaries, but behind the scenes there was also a significant amount of scepticism.

A £32m gallery dedicated to sculpture. In Wakefield. Those not blessed with as much optimism as Wallis feared that once the opening celebrations had died down, those vast exhibition spaces would become a ghost town. However, almost immediately those doubters were silenced.

While the visitor number targets may have been set deliberately low, the pull of The Hepworth was impressive. The aim for the first year - 150,000 - was met within five weeks and they kept on coming. To date 1.6m have passed through the various galleries.

“There was a bit of negativity surrounding the gallery,” admits Wallis. “But among the people who were working on the project there was a confidence that if we built it right they would come.

“One of the key elements was the building itself. It was the biggest purpose-built gallery outside of London, but it never felt like it was something which had been dropped here from outer space. That was down to the genius of David Chipperfield Architects. It’s plain speaking, it’s muscular and to me it has always felt like it was hewn from the same landscape which inspired Hepworth and her contemporary Henry Moore.”

One of the latest artists to exhibit at The Hepworth is Des Hughes, who took his lead from Moore by working with Castleford school children to produce a series of figures inspired by his sculpture Working Model of Draped Reclining Figure. Reaching out to the local community is something Wallis has always been keen on.

“This is an area whose fortunes have always been so closely tied to mining and industry,” he says. “I think that’s why sculpture has such an innate and powerful appeal. Unlike some other art forms, there is a process to sculpture much like engineering.

“Also I think people sometimes forget that as human beings we have a natural inquisitiveness. That’s something that I see everyday when I come to work. I’ve never had a boring conversation in an art gallery and what’s lovely is you regularly see teenagers chatting away with those four or five times their age. There aren’t many spaces these days that foster that kind of inter-generational dialogue.”

The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture is open to artists of any age, and at any stage of their career, and selection will depend on the significance of their contribution to the medium.

“The artists will be selected by a panel of experts, but one of the reasons for staging the exhibition is to find out what our visitors think,” adds Wallis. “Our aim has always been to make art accessible and to give people a sense of ownership over the work. You don’t need a degree in fine art to come to our gallery. In fact the only qualification you need to come here is a pulse.”

Wallis says one of the greatest achievements of the gallery to date has been to raise the profile of Barbara Hepworth. While her name may have been well-known in her home county of Yorkshire, like many female artists her work and legacy has often been overshadowed by her male contemporaries, not least Moore.

He also hopes the Prize will do the same for other artists and give them the platform and attention the Turner Prize has done for the likes of Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Grayson Perry.

“This year, Tate Britain has staged a major retrospective of Hepworth’s sculptures in wood, stone and bronze alongside rarely seen works. Her profile has certainly been raised and I like to think we have been part of that movement to give her the recognition that she rightly deserves.”

Wallis says he never particularly excelled at traditional academic subjects, but found fulfilment in art. He studied photography at art school but soon realised his vocation lay in curating rather than creating work.

Before he moved north he was director at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, dedicated to contemporary art, and while he didn’t know much about Yorkshire he did know about Peter Murray, the founder of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which in 2014 was named the Art Prize Fund’s Museum of the Year

“He was definitely one of the reasons why I was attracted to working up here,” he says. “That place is incredible, Peter is incredible and he did what he did in the face of much initial opposition. I’m sure it must be about time that he was made a Sir.”

Along with the Sculpture Park, Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute, the Hepworth has formed the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. The project is still in its infancy, but the idea is to join forces to stage exhibitions and attract visitors.

“We are stronger together than we are apart,” says Wallis, who is a vocal supporter of Leeds’ bid to become the European City of Culture in 2023. “It’s a massive opportunity not just for Leeds, but for the wider city region.

“Our aim has always been to have a local, national and international reach and what better showcase could there be? We have so much to be proud of in this part of the world. Culture adds to the wealth of the region and to the richness of all our lives.

“Culture isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. No great city in the world has a second rate cultural offering. Art develops the imagination and without it, the world would be a vastly poorer place.”